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Sex & Modern Slavery: Understanding sex trafficking, how victims get trapped in the illicit industry in US

Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which victims are made to perform commercial sex through fraud or coercion
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Sex & Modern Slavery is a campaign focused on the issues of human trafficking within the sex industry in the US. Over the next few days, this column will feature stories on the aspects of the illicit business and the role of the society in mitigating the issue.

Human trafficking is one of the largest illicit businesses in the United States, however, it is still quite poorly understood. According to the main international anti-trafficking law, known as the Palermo Protocol, human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” Not all victims of human trafficking are victims of sex trafficking, however, MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) will focus on sex trafficking and its scope within the US.

Human trafficking has three core components -- the "act", the "means" and the "purpose." The act refers to the way in which the person is recruited or moved, the means refer to the coercion used to carry out the recruitment or movement such as threats, force or deception used, and the purpose refers to the motivation of the trafficker in how they intend to exploit the victim -- it could be for labor, sexual exploitation, or even their organs.

Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which victims are made to perform commercial sex through fraud or coercion. Often, minors under 18 years old who are engaged in commercial sex are considered to be victims of human trafficking. By using violence, threats, lies, false promises, debt bondages, or other forms of control and manipulation, traffickers keep the victims involved in the sex industry for their own profit. These businesses exist in various forms including fake massage businesses, escort services, residential brothels, strip clubs, hostess clubs and in some hotels and motels.

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Those who get trapped by traffickers are people mostly trying to escape vulnerable situations like poverty or discrimination to improve their lives and support their families. Vulnerable people are often forced to take unimaginable risks to try and escape poverty or persecution, accepting precarious job offers and making hazardous migration decisions, often borrowing money from their traffickers in advance. When they arrive they find that the work does not exist, or conditions are completely different. They become trapped, reliant on their traffickers, and extremely vulnerable. Their documents are often taken away and they are forced to work until their debt is paid off.

In the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), as amended by the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 (JVTA), defines sex trafficking as “recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of an individual through the means of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of commercial sex”. However, it is not necessary to demonstrate force, fraud, or coercion in sex trafficking cases involving children under the age of 18. The term “commercial sex act” is defined as “any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person”

The International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation estimated that there are 4.8 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally. In the US, sex trafficking victims include immigrants as well as American citizens. Though there is no official number, advocates and researchers say the number of domestic victims is high. Alarmingly, it was reported by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 2019 that one in six endangered runaways reported to them were likely sex trafficking victims. 

(Getty Images)

The vast majority of sex trafficking victims are women and girls, though men, boys, trans, intersex, and nonbinary individuals can be victims as well. The International Labour Organization estimates that 99% of the adults and children forced into sexual exploitation in 2016 are female. In its 2019 report, the State Department found the top three nations of origin for human trafficking victims were the United States, Mexico and the Philippines. It does not break that figure down for sex trafficking alone. In illicit massage parlors in the US, the vast majority of reported trafficking victims are from China, with a notable number from the Fujian province in southeastern China. South Korea forms the second highest group. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported that in 2018, it received 5,147 reported cases of human trafficking. Of those, 3,718 were related to sex trafficking. 

It is important to note that sex trafficking is different from prostitution. In sex trafficking, there is a third party involved who benefits from the transaction between the "john" and the victim. Additionally, there is the fact that human sex trafficking takes place through methods of force and coercion.

If you or someone you know may be a victim of trafficking, call the national human trafficking hotline at 888-373-7888 or text “HELP” to 233-733.